Two weeks ago, when the Michigan men’s basketball team looked at its schedule, it held its breath. It was readying for a daunting three-game stretch of top-25 talent featuring then-No. 20 Purdue on the road, then-No. 3 Maryland at home and then-No. 16 Iowa in Iowa City. The Wolverines came out with only one win — upsetting the Terrapins — but also put up a good showing against a stronger Hawkeyes team.
This week, as Michigan (3-2 Big Ten, 13-5 overall) looks ahead, it can breathe a small sigh of relief. The menu for the next 10 days includes a helping of the Big Ten’s bottom feeders, starting with Minnesota (0-6, 6-12) on Wednesday night at Crisler Center and ending with Penn State (2-4, 11-8) in a neutral-site game at Madison Square Garden in New York on Jan. 30. Sandwiched in between is a trip to Lincoln to take on Nebraska (3-3, 11-8) and a home bout against Rutgers (0-6, 6-13).
To simplify the difference between the last two weeks and the next two weeks: Michigan’s past three opponents have totaled 46 wins this season; it’s next four have combined for 34.
The slate of lesser opponents offers the Wolverines a chance to bounce back from a challenging stretch. But, of course, don’t tell that to Michigan coach John Beilein, who is as likely to discount an upcoming opponent as Rick’s is to let you skip the line when it’s not your birthday.
“Still no must wins, you know that — not this time of the year,” Beilein said of the upcoming slate of games. “But yeah, this is the way you got to look at it always: every home game. You saw how difficult it is to win on the road. You know that; we all know that. … (Our game against Minnesota is) an opportunity to win at home against a team that’s scrappy, that’s feisty.”
Despite that scrappiness and feistiness, Minnesota has little to show for it. The Golden Gophers are still looking for their first conference win and are riding a seven-game losing streak into Ann Arbor, looking for their fist win since Dec. 16.
Statistically, it’s easy to see why Minnesota is in the gutter. The Gophers’ 41.2 shooting percentage ranks dead last in the Big Ten, and their 77.3 points allowed per game is the second highest in the conference.
In his third year at the helm, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino has struggled to find the same success as he did in his first season, when he led the Gophers to a 2013-14 NIT title. Since taking over, he has lost nine players to graduation, and his roster this year is underclassman-heavy. The past two contests, Minnesota’s starting five has featured three freshmen and two sophomores.
One of those sophomores, guard Nate Mason, leads the team in minutes and is pacing 12.3 points per game. He’s one of four Gophers averaging double-digit scoring. Forward Joey King (12.9, 3.4, 1.6) has been one of Pitino’s first options off the bench in the last two games, and Minnesota has also gotten contributions from guard Carlos Morris (10.8, 3.9, 1.4) and forward Jordan Murphy (10.5, 8.1, 0.5).
After getting mauled by Nebraska last week, Minnesota hung with an Indiana team Saturday that has yet to lose a game in the Big Ten. But despite an 18-point performance from King, the Hoosiers were able to hold off the Gophers down the stretch.
On Michigan’s side, Beilein all but confirmed that it would be without senior guard Caris LeVert for the fifth straight game as he continues to recover from a left-foot injury.
“We continue to get encouraging news about Caris,” Beilein said. “He’s doing more and more right now on and off the court. We expect (more work) on and off the court going forward. We have no date yet, and we’ll see how he tolerates any pain going forward.”
Michigan might miss LeVert’s on-court leadership the most. In its two most recent losses to Purdue and Iowa, it was able to fight back, but never able to completely close the gap, allowing the Boilermakers and Hawkeyes to go on late runs.
“We talk about losses that we have had this year, there’s always been that four-minute stretch in the first half or the second half we just fell apart,” said junior forward Zak Irvin. “We just got to stay together as a team. We can’t have mental lapses. (Against Iowa) we had one in the beginning of the game which hurt us, and then we had one late in the second half also. We got to stay strong mentally and just come together as a team.”